OAK BROOK Ill. Guests at most domestic McDonald’s restaurants will have free access to wireless Internet connections, or Wi-Fi hot spots, by mid January, a change for the No. 1 burger chain that pits it more directly against coffee rival Starbucks Coffee, which has been long considered a place for Wi-Fi access.
The move will make Oak Brook-based McDonald’s the largest provider of complimentary Wi-Fi service among U.S. foodservice firms. Observers say it might also pressure the Starbucks Coffee chain to reconsider the prices it charges for Wi-Fi access, as well as push other chains to offer additional value-driven services to guests who want more and more from restaurants for less and less money.
Free Wi-Fi service is already being offered as an amenity at most if not all of the branches of several smaller restaurant chains, including Panera Bread of Richmond Heights, Mo., with about 1,200 domestic outlets, and all of the close to 400 Krystal restaurants operated or franchised by The Krystal Co. of Chattanooga, Tenn.
McDonald’s USA chief information officer David Grooms spoke to Nation’s Restaurant News about the chain’s strategy.
Asked if McDonald’s would sell advertising or sponsorships to underwrite the cost of its Wi-Fi program, he said, “We’re not doing any of that stuff.” And there will be no time limits on guest use of Wi-Fi, he noted.
As to whether the introduction of free Wi-Fi access in the chain’s restaurants might lead to additional guest services or attempts by McDonald’s to reach out directly to wireless communications device users in its stores, Grooms said, “We’re going to launch [free Wi-Fi] and learn.” He added that the chain would monitor the consumer chatter about its Wi-Fi program using social media networks.
Free Wi-Fi “will be of great benefit to our guests and we like the sound of that,” Grooms said.
“Our customers tell us hands down, ‘We like your Wi-Fi, it is convenient, but we’d really like it to be free,’” he said.
Today, barring some local-store option with different terms, patrons at the approximately 11,500 U.S.-based McDonald’s restaurants with Wi-Fi hotspots must pay $2.95 for two hours of wireless Internet access. That fee is waived for subscribers to certain AT&T cellular plans, as AT&T is McDonald’s’ partner in the Wi-Fi operations within its restaurants.
In all, McDonald’s has about 14,000 U.S.-based restaurants.
“It is the right time to do this,” Grooms said. “As a company, we want to invite people in.”
McDonald’s is in the midst of a reimaging campaign including such touches as new restaurant prototypes and upscale food offerings like McCafe espresso drinks. The McCafe program has placed McDonald’s in the premium coffee category along with Starbucks and others, like Caribou Coffee or Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Starbucks Corp. of Seattle for some time has offered in-store Wi-Fi service for a fee of $3.99 for two hours at many of its 11,128 Starbucks Coffee locations it operates or licenses to others in the United States. The coffee chain has begun providing up to two hours of complimentary Wi-Fi access daily to users of its Starbucks Card, a pre-loaded payment card attached to the chain’s loyalty system, as well as to holders of its Duetto affinity Visa charge card.
According to Grooms, logging on to the Wi-Fi service in McDonald’s restaurants will have a “slightly different look and feel” come January and the launch of free access. Wi-Fi users will be shown information about Ronald McDonald House charities, as part of a new log-on routine that he described as “fast and easy.”